Obama’s plan for change…or whatever
By Jenna Scatena
Within a week of being inaugurated, President Obama proclaimed he was “announcing the first steps on our journey toward energy independence.” Obama’s vision, though certainly not the first U.S. presidential vision–or promise–of energy independence, has been a particularly ambitious one. This, Obama assures us, is our “new energy economy. “New. Energy. Economy. Even when standing alone, those three words evoke a powerful response in Americans. And Obama has combined them into one appetizing sound bite.
According to americanenergyindependence.com: “Politically, Energy Independence means energy abundance and energy self-sufficiency derived from a variety of domestic energy resources. The phrase Energy Independence has become a powerful national slogan. Originally conceived and defined in the context of the 1973 Arab oil embargo, Energy Independence has now become the title of America’s new energy policy.” The primary goal of energy independence has always been to strengthen national security.
Energy independence is an isolated internal energy system that relies on whatever resources our nation’s property provides–which historically has nothing to do with decreasing carbon emissions. From 1973 and into the future as far as we can see, that means mainly using coal, oil, sun, wind, plants and nuclear to meet our energy needs. Though different presidents have envisioned a different fuel focus, they have all nonetheless kept some combination of them as a means for the U.S. to reach the coveted title of energy independence. And today is no different–even with our new president of “change.” President Obama sees our bright American future being powered by every resource we have access too–just like every president we’ve had in the last 36 years.
If the U.S. stops importing oil from the Middle East, we will need to supplement the oil we are no longer getting from them with other forms of energy. Obama has been exciting lots of environmentalists by looking toward alternative forms of energy such as solar and wind, but he’s also been clear that he will be investing significantly in the realm of coal and nuclear production. In fact, he’s planning on putting forth $3.4 billion to develop coal-fired plants.
Terms such as? “alternative energy” means different things to different people: environmentalists typically refer to it as only including renewable and low-carbon emission fuel sources such as solar, wind and certain biofuels. In politics, however, it typically means alternative in respect to petroleum—putting nuclear and coal in the “alternative energy” category–both of which still have significant costs on the environment.
In terms if biofuels, what type is the most effective (has the lowest carbon output and takes the least amount of energy to convert) is still controversial. The Bush Administration gave significant attention to corn-based ethanol production and although that prospect is fading as a significant source of energy, it’s clear that at least some of our future energy needs will be met with biofuel production. However, it’s currently unclear exactly how much weight Obama will give to biofuel.
The ethanol industry has been a hope for many wishing to relieve America’s dependence on foreign oil with “green” biofuel, but more recently people have realized the negative impacts and inefficiency of corn ethanol.
Under the Bush administration, ethanol seemed to promise a panacea for our nation’s many urgent issues. Ethanol enthusiasts boasted that farming corn would provide thousands of jobs, allow America to gain energy independence and decrease carbon emissions. It might lessen our environmental guilt to say we’re using “green” biofuel (life fuel!), but it’s important to focus on what will ultimately give us the most energy with the lowest carbon emissions.
But critics argued that corn ethanol’s “green” image was a façade and the conviction that it could alleviate our energy problem was a false hope, blown out of proportion by the media and America’s eager desire for a cure-all. The idea that a single resource could single-handedly fix the economy, our dependence on foreign oil and global warming itself proved to be an alluring, but elusive, promise.
The potential for cellulosic (nonfood) biofuel has been acknowledged for years. Cellulosic forms of ethanol such as perennial grasses and woodchips emit two to three times less carbon than corn ethanol.
For instance, corn ethanol releases only slightly less carbon than gasoline (less than 2 percent) and consequences such as soil erosion and increased food price are drastic. The monoculture corn is cultivated in requires immense amounts of herbicides, fungicides, pesticides and petrochemicals. And the fertilizers used contain high levels of nitrogen, contributing to mass soil erosion and “dead zones,” such as the one in the Gulf of Mexico. Here, the Mississippi River dumps so much agricultural waste into The Gulf that the concentration of nitrogen restricts oxygen levels in the water so nothing can live there. This particular dead zone is expanding beyond the size of New Jersey and more are popping up where there’s excessive agricultural runoff.
Aside from the destruction nitrogen causes soil, many experts are concerned that using corn for ethanol instead of food will perpetuate our world’s hunger problem. Using farmable land to feed our energy-hungry nation rather than hungry people is not in anyone’s interest. Vic Smith, a biologist at the Naturalist Center of the California Academy of Sciences and environmental science instructor at College of Marin in Northern California, says, “It is a legitimate concern to worry about the possibility of increased food shortages, higher food prices and increased world hunger if the world’s focus is to concentrate on creating energy from edible biomass [food].”
The U.S. supplies approximately 70 percent of the world’s corn, so in 2005 when America began using most of its corn crops for ethanol production, other countries experienced dramatic price increases for an essential staple food. We saw a sobering example of this in Mexico in late 2006: Mexico receives 80 percent of its corn imports from the U.S., so when corn prices went from $2.80 to $4.20 a bushel because more U.S. corn was being used for ethanol, the price of the tortilla doubled.
The increase drastically affected the 53 million people living in poverty in Mexico. In a dramatic response, riots broke out and President Felipe Calderon put a cap on corn prices. Though this is likely to be the most dramatic example we’ve seen of increased corn prices affecting the food market, it’s probably not the last: The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) has projected that global corn prices could rise 20 percent by 2010 and 41 percent by 2020.
Although the extent of corn ethanol’s affect on the global food market is still being debated, one thing is known for sure: The price of fuel directly affects the cost of biofuel.
Fuel, no matter the kind, requires consumption of resources and energy in order to be produced. The costs of harvesting and transporting any kind of material and converting it into a viable product will inevitably affect some parts of ecology, society and the economy.
Converting a resource (corn, woodchips, etc.) requires fuel–mainly gas and coal. This doesn’t make for an economically sustainable fuel alternative.
All things considered, the net energy balance of harvesting, transporting and converting corn into ethanol is less than 2 percent–barely making it more “environmentally friendly.”
The problem now is finding the most accessible, economical and sustainable solution we have. The U.S. Energy Information Administration projects that by 2030, carbon emissions per capita will decrease by 5 percent due to the increased use of biofuel. However, despite our using 15 billion gallons of corn ethanol, energy-related carbon emissions in the U.S. will still increase by 16 percent. This is mainly because they’re factoring in that the U.S. plans to increase the use of coal by 49 percent, making us the world’s largest coal emitters second to China. It simply does not make sense to use a resource that possesses the highest carbon content (coal) to produce a so-called “green” biofuel.
Some researchers, and Obama, are looking into the possibilities of cellulosic ethanol–biofuel derived solely from nonfood plants like perennial grasses and algae. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory recently estimated that 1.3 billion tons of cellulosic ethanol has the potential to replace over half of the transportation fuel burned each year — emitting 40 percent less greenhouse gases than corn ethanol when used in a flexible fuel vehicle.
Cellulosic biofuel is something that has held this sort of promise for a long time, but has only been actualized in a handful of small operations around the U.S. However, in January, Cornell University opened its new Cellulosic Biofuels Program. The laboratory was initiated by a $10 million grant from the Empire State Development Corporation.
Next to the Cornell dairy barn, is the site of the 11,500-square-foot biofuel facility. Larry Walker, a professor of biological and environmental engineering, directs the Biofuels Research Laboratory. With $6 million of brand new state-of-the-art equipment, Walker and his multidisciplinary team are preparing to research the development of converting cellulosic materials (mainly perennial grasses and woody biomass in this case) into biofuel that is more economically feasible and environmentally friendly than corn ethanol.
“We’re not hung up on [only] cellulosic material,” Walker explained. But you do get a “better carbon footprint with perennial grasses than with corn. Nitrogen usage is less and water usage is less.” He pointed out that, “when you work with cellulosic materials you get two sugars instead of one,” making the biofuel more efficient. Cellulosic ethanol emits 82 to 85 percent fewer greenhouse gases than gasoline (compared to 12 percent fewer with corn ethanol). It also doesn’t harm the soil or interfere with the food market as much as corn does.
One of the main challenges in maintaining a successful program, Walker said, is going to be finding ways to develop biofuel in an economic and sustainable way and also to find additional funding. Another barrier he points out is, “being able to produce this material, handle it, store it–to make it available throughout the year… [and] cellusloic material is not very dense, which makes it harder [than corn ethanol] to transport.”
According to Walker, “What we tend to do is distill the challenges down into a few sound bites, when we really need to look at the complete system… It’s not enough to look at the individual components. Bioenergy systems are complex enterprises.” This is why monoculture systems (such as he current corn production system) are shortsighted: Monoculture takes one material that is considered economical and sustainable and hyper-focuses on cultivating that one resource, leaving all other potentials out of the picture. This is why it’s important to expand our vision to encompass a more diverse system for our fuel problem. By diversifying production inputs for biofuel, we can expand production of alternative fuels while diffusing detrimental effects on the environment and the economy.
Walker recognizes that Cornell’s new program alone cannot solve the problem of finding accessible and sustainable biofuel: “I can make ethanol out of newspapers, apples–a lot of different things. But the bottom line is: Is it economically and environmentally sustainable?” Developing biofuels and making it a successful reality is going to take more than just one system. Walker believes that, “science, engineering and good policy is going to allow us to develop renewable energy systems broadly that will help us sustain human development.”
When choosing where exactly Obama will be investing in our energy future, it’s essential he make it carefully, taking into consideration not only how much energy output we can get from a single source, but all of the ripple effects on our food and environmental systems as well. If Obama favors energy independence over a clean energy economy, we risk environmental tolls that we cannot afford. If the U.S. focuses too much on inefficient energies like coal or corn, eventually we will have to deal with its economic and environmental consequences.
Jenna Scatena is a senior writing major. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.